Stranded in Paradise: How Lindy Aquino Became Hawaii’s Foremost Authority on the Philippines

Lindy in Waikiki (Photo courtesy of Rose Aquino)

Lindy in Waikiki (Photo courtesy of Rose Aquino)

If not for a burning sofa, a legal loophole, a support system of relatives (so Filipino), and the lack of a ticket, Dr. Belinda Aquino would never have found herself as head of the first Philippine Studies program in the U.S. and a foremost academic in the field of Philippine politics, power and culture.

Aquino, called Lindy by her friends, began her academic journey modestly. She was an English major at the University of the Philippines Diliman (UP), a degree she pursued despite her father’s wish that she become a lawyer “because I had a good memory.” She was teaching at UP when the university offered her a Ford Foundation grant. She used it to pursue a doctorate at New York’s Cornell University. From there, her career trajectory curved only one way: upwards.

Lindy is recognized nationally and internationally as a prominent authority on contemporary Philippines. She has been a fellow, visiting scholar, consultant and lecturer in institutions such as the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, the Singapore Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Bangkok Thammasat University, and four universities in Indonesia. She chaired the Southeast Asia Council of the Association of Asian Studies. She has published dozens of papers and authored four books. Her awards for outstanding achievement include recognitions from the Hawaii State Legislature, the Philippine government, the YWCA and the University of Hawaii. You can find opinion pieces under her byline in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asian Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, and Newsday, Philippine Inquirer. Locally, she writes for the Filipino papers.

As Lindy tells it, her life’s path is a result of fate, perseverance, and her response to surrounding circumstances.  

Lindy (left) at FAUW (Filipino Asspciation of University Women) parol making workshop, held beachfront in Lanikai, Oahu, with author Pepi Nieva and Cecile Joaquin Yasay.

Lindy (left) at FAUW (Filipino Asspciation of University Women) parol making workshop, held beachfront in Lanikai, Oahu, with author Pepi Nieva and Cecile Joaquin Yasay.

Fate intervened in 1972, when her delayed return ticket to the Philippines finally arrived at Cornell. Late in the evening of her despedida party, she felt heat coming out the living room. The sofa was generating huge amounts of smoke. A friend, Isabel, had fallen asleep with a lighted reefer.  

“Dulce, get out! Jump out of the window,” Lindy yelled at her sleeping roommate. Lindy pushed the door with her arms to escape. The next thing she knew she was in the hospital.

Isabel died from the incident. Dulce got away with minor sprains. Lindy remained in the hospital for a month while doctors grafted new skin on her third-degree burns.

“The first thing on my mind was: How can I finish my dissertation? All my research materials had been seared,” she recalls. The next worry was how to get back to the Philippines. “I had to finish my obligation to teach at UP because they gave me the Cornell grant. But then I found out I had been blacklisted by the Marcos government.” 

Martial law had just been declared in the Philippines. Later, a Philippine Consulate official in California, who defected to the anti-martial law side, confessed that he was forced to spy on the activities of Filipinos abroad. He produced a blacklist of 150 people accused of activities detrimental to Philippine security.

“I was horrified to find my name as number six on the list,” Lindy recounts. “All our passports were revoked.”

While sympathetic to the causes of activists at the UP, then a hotbed for protests, she had not considered herself as a militant radical. She surmises that she landed on the list due to her involvement in a Cornell conference to discuss alternatives to martial law.

Lindy was awarded one of four Outstanding Community Leaders by the YWCA for 2012

Lindy was awarded one of four Outstanding Community Leaders by the YWCA for 2012

At a loss, she decided to fly to Hawaii to complete her dissertation. There she had relatives to support her. But to complicate matters, she had to fight deportation because her Cornell student visa had expired.

Stranded in paradise. That’s when perseverance stepped in.

“I filed for asylum to buy time,” she says, “but the Philippines was not an enemy of America, so asylum was not available to Filipinos then. I was put on trial by the INS and I decided to fight the decision.” A good researcher as always, she found a loophole in the U.S. immigration law, which allows suspension of deportation after seven years. By that time, Lindy already was a tax-paying, gainfully employed professor of political science at the University of Hawaii. At her immigration trial, the visiting immigration officer from California dismissed her case. “I was free at last!” she laughs. “I even got a letter from George Bush stating, ‘Welcome to America.’”

While in her “stateless status,” a defining event occurred in Hawaii.  The State Legislature issued a resolution to create a Filipino program at the University of Hawaii. With it came funding for a feasibility study. Lindy was hired for the job. Within a couple of years, the country’s first Philippine Studies program was launched with Lindy as its first director. Lindy points out that most U.S. universities emphasize Filipinos and Filipino American history in their Ethnic Studies offerings. Philippine Studies’ scope is broader, encompassing Philippine history, sociology, anthropology, and contemporary issues.

Lindy focused her work on Philippine and Southeast Asian politics, women and cultural minorities, human rights, U.S.-Philippine relations, and Filipino social issues in America. Of special interest was presidential leadership, especially that of President Ferdinand Marcos during the martial law era.

“Society continues to change. So the job of furthering knowledge must always continue.” – Prof. Lindy Aquino.

The martial law years were difficult and divisive for Filipinos in Hawaii, many of whom are from Marcos’ stronghold, the Ilocos region. Lindy, an Ilocano herself, became a force in the U.S.-based anti-martial law movement, participating in demonstrations, editing the Pahayag resistance publication, and writing articles for various media. She was active in the opposition organization, Friends of the Filipino People.

Professor Jojo Abinales, a fellow UP graduate and University of Hawaii professor, says this of Lindy’s influence in the anti-martial law resistance: “When I refer to ‘Kumander Lindy,’ I do so out of respect. For she has combined scholarship with a deep love for democratic politics. In my days at UP during the heyday of the Marcos dictatorship, we would receive by mail cut-outs of her columns and were comforted by the fact that in those dark days, we knew people abroad had kept the fight as we did back home.”

After Marcos was overthrown and went into exile in Hawaii in 1986, President Corazon Aquino signed her first executive order: the creation of the Philippine Commission of Good Government (PCGG) to recover as much of the Marcos wealth allegedly plundered from the Philippine public coffers, businesses, financial holdings of opposition figures, and others. Lindy was appointed one of four PCGG representatives in the U.S. In that position, she was given access to the “Marcos Papers,” the documents the Marcoses brought with them to Hawaii, which included a paper trail of the family’s worldwide holdings: properties; off-shore corporations; stocks and more.

“In effect, the exact amount may never be determined because much of these were hidden in various locations, or held by designated persons associated with the regime,” says Lindy of the PCGG efforts. “My book, Politics of Plunder: the Philippines Under Marcos, has many appendices listing the money, jewelry, guns, and other items including a statue of the Santo Nino carried by the two planes that brought the Marcoses to Hawaii. Some amounts have been recovered by the Philippine government, but so much more remains hidden and may never surface.”

Finally in 1989, Lindy returned to the Philippines to fulfill her two-year service obligation to the university that had allowed her entry into the U.S. She served as UP vice president for Public Affairs, which entailed interacting with the media, alumni, Congress, other educational institutions, and foreign embassies and consulates. She visited campuses in Los Banos, Cebu, Iloilo, Tacloban, and Davao, and UP branches in Tarlac, San Fernando, and Baguio. “These are my favorite places,” says the well-traveled professor. She also represented UP in events in Brunei, Japan, and the US.

In 1991, she returned to the Center for Philippine Studies, where she continued teaching and publishing until her retirement and appointment as Professor Emeritus in 2010. In retirement, Lindy’s social calendar is filled with events held by Filipino societies, which she views as useful organizations that help new immigrants ease into life in America. The groups also contribute to the general community, offering scholarships and performing service projects like helping the homeless.

Lindy attributes her considerable accomplishments merely to academic requirements: instruction; research and contribution to the profession and service. “Publish or perish,” she says, citing her scholarly contributions as the result of “the pressures and expectations in academia to produce works or writings that reflect original research, significant insights, and potential for further scholarly research. You are expected to contribute to the advancement of scholarship in your chosen field of study.”

Her reputation and list of achievements, however, suggest much more than fulfilling tenure-track conditions.

“She’s a walking encyclopedia on the Philippines,” says Rose Churma, Lindy’s former neighbor and occasional “Uber driver” (Lindy doesn’t drive), who is active in many Filipino initiatives. “She’s had a front-row view of the history of the Filipinos in Hawaii, with lots of inside information about the people and events here in the islands. That gives her an extraordinary perspective which she’s used to inform her writing as well as her involvement with local and national politics.”

“Emeritus Professor Lindy Aquino was a trailblazer in establishing the Center on Philippine Studies at UH Manoa in the early 1970s. She organized professional meetings to connect scholars from the Philippines and other parts of the U.S., Europe, and Asia to engage in research on the Philippines and the diaspora. Her critical research on the Marcos regime is an important contribution to Philippine Studies. She shared her expertise with the Filipino community, now the second largest ethnic group in the state,” says civic rights leader and education advocate Dr. Amy Agbayani, Lindy’s contemporary at the University of Hawaii.

“Professor Aquino has played a big role as a steward of Philippine Studies in the U.S. and has been a source of advice and inspiration to similar associations in Japan and Europe,” says Jojo Abinales.

Lindy (right) at the Philippine Consulate Independence Day celebration with Elizabeth Frilles and Araceli Jimeno, wife of Philippine Consul General Joselito Jimeno.

Lindy (right) at the Philippine Consulate Independence Day celebration with Elizabeth Frilles and Araceli Jimeno, wife of Philippine Consul General Joselito Jimeno.

“I want to simply be remembered as one who has fulfilled my role, duties, and responsibilities reasonably well in institutions where I spent my career,” says Lindy. Her one regret is personal: not enough time spent with her parents. The youngest of eight children, she was the only one “who got away.”

“I was always away doing field work, working abroad,” she says. “My mother was the kindest, most generous, uncomplaining woman I know. I never really got the chance to tell her that.” Her mother, Teresa Ducusin Ancheta, went to school with the Thomasite teachers brought to the Philippines from America. Teresa was one of the first nursing students recruited from the Ilocos region by the Philippine General Hospital; she never graduated, marrying instead. Lindy has donated a professorial chair at the UP in her honor.

Lindy remembers her father Modesto Aquino, a mayor of San Fernando, La Union, as one of the last old-time politicians who valued public service instead of private gain. “I became his favorite child. He started to call me ‘Billy’ for some reason. Perhaps he still couldn’t forget that deep in his heart, he would have preferred a boy,” Lindy wrote in her story Searching for My Mother’s Past. The essay is included Pinay: Culture Bearers of the Filipino Diaspora, a publication of the Filipino Association of University Women (FAUW), in which she is a member.

The diaspora and the plight of overseas workers are among Lindy’s areas of concern. “My overriding hope is for the Philippines and Filipinos to reach a level of political and social stability, economic security and peace, where the fundamental problems of poverty, illiteracy, inequality, corruption, lack of education, and related situations can be overcome,” she says.

Study areas like those concentrating on the Philippines are always struggling to remain financially viable as students gravitate to more popular fields like computer science, says Lindy. That’s why she created the Belinda A. Aquino International Philippine Studies Endowment to support the “intellectual tradition of acquiring deeper knowledge and understanding of the Philippines as a strategic country in Asia-Pacific.” The endowment joins funds Lindy requested from business magnate Alfonso Yuchengco, cartoonist Corky Trinidad and his associates, and journalist Ligaya Fruto to ensure that the Center for Philippine Studies can offer scholarships, research, workshops, exchanges and more now and in the future.

“How does academic work contribute to society? It is our responsibility as researchers, teachers and scholars to provide vital sources of knowledge to clarify, advance, and help resolve problems and issues facing humanity,” Lindy affirms. “I would like to think that my main legacy lies in my contributions with particular reference to academia, as well as my role in the pro-democracy movement in the U.S.

“Society continues to change. So the job of furthering knowledge must always continue.”

Pepi Nieva

Pepi Nieva

Pepi Nieva is a writer and public relations professional who lives in Honolulu and Portland, Oregon. She started her career in tourism in the Philippines and travel remains on top of her to do list. 

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